Slow Cook Turkey - Cook Turkey Overnight
Low and Slow (Just Say No)
We continue to receive request for information about how long to slow cook turkey at temperatures between 180 – 250 F.
You know not to contaminate ready to eat food with bacteria that might be present on uncooked food such as poultry, but cooking food kills the bacteria right?
You may have read that bacteria are killed by cooking turkey to a finishing temperature of 165 F. That is true. And even a lower finishing temperature will kill bacteria if the food is held at that temperature for a certain period of time. But there are two problems that may arise.
Problem 1: Significant Bacterial LoadWhen you slow cook turkey this is the first problem..
Although that finishing temperature kills most - a significant proportion - of the bacteria, it is possible that if the bacterial load is very large that even after killing “a significant proportion,” enough live bacteria might remain to begin rapidly growing again as the food cools.
How might a large bacterial load occur?
Slow Cook Turkey: cooking at a low temperature for a long time.
If you take a big piece of meat, like a turkey, and you cook it slowly, like overnight, at a low temperature, like 200 F. the turkey starts to heat up. As the temperature rises above 40 F the bacteria begin to grow, sometimes very rapidly. They keep growing until the turkey temperature reaches the top of the danger zone 140 F. As the turkey continues to cook most of the bacteria are killed. But if enough bacteria were produced during the slow cooking, there may be enough left over to cause trouble.
The upside of this is that you can use yourself and guests as kind of a lab experiment to figure out which bacteria were able to make it through the night. After eating the turkey do you have diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, and fever? There was very likely Salmonella on that turkey. Do you have diarrhea (possibly bloody), abdominal cramps, fever, and headaches? That was most likely Campylobacter jejuni.
Problem 2: Heat Resistant Spores
Clostridium perfringens grows rapidly in the danger zone, but it also protects itself when temperatures would otherwise be high enough to kill it.
It forms spores that are heat resistant. When temperatures drop, these spores can turn back into bacteria and begin growing again. And, it creates toxins that can lead to toxin-mediated infection.
Bottom LineWe aren’t just trying to be party poopers (we will leave that to the micro-organisms.)
Back when the USDA insisted that turkey was only safe when cooked at 180 F. we couldn’t go along with that for our own celebratory bird. That temperature dried out the turkey way too much. We looked at the studies and decided there wasn’t much of a risk to cook to 165 F., and if there was a risk we were willing to take it to eat a juicy bird. (The USDA came around to our way of thinking and now recommends 165 F as the safe finish temperature.)
But in the case of the low and slow oven cooked turkey, we don’t see any advantage. The resulting turkey is not any better, and in many cases is not as good as other safer methods. There is no reward for taking the risk.
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